1991 Salsa Ala Carte #SM786
A Ross Shafer Classic with Drop Bars and Team Jelly Bean Paint.
The Salsa Ala Carte in the infamous Jelly Bean paint shares space on a list of top tier US made 'production' bikes. It's not some mass produced overseas made Trek or Giant, but it's not a low production unobtanium bike either. Like a Klein, Yeti, Ritchey, Bontrager, or Fat Chance...the Salsa falls into that sweet spot as a vintage mountain bike. Not so rare that they can't be found, but not so common that you'd see it on any college campus bike rack either. Prominent enough that you probably remember reading about it in MBAction or seeing the ad with Ross Shafer along side Keith Bontrager.
I've owned and ridden quite a few vintage mountain bikes and out of all the iconic brands, I've found a terrific connection with the Salsa Ala Carte. It was, up until recently, one of the vintage mtbs I've owned the longest. It's evolved over the years into what I felt was a very subtle and purposeful build. And I essentially got the bike for free.
Part of the process for me is buying, trying, and moving the non-performers along. This was the case with a Stumpjumper Epic that I'd sold on eBay. The buyer was local and came to my place to pick up the frame. As we were discussing vintage mountain bikes, a particular bike in my collection caught his eye. One that I'd gotten for free. When I asked if he had anything in his own collection, he mentioned a Salsa with the 'Rasta' paint and drop bars. It was all I could do to play it cool and casually agree to a potential straight across trade.
When we met up again, the Salsa was run down and needed a full rebuild, but the bones where there. My size, iconic paint, and seemingly built as a drop bar mtb from the start. We traded bikes straight across and to this day, one of the best deals I've ever made.
Right away I made some minor changes and got the bike running. It was comfortable and a pretty good riding bike. The drop bar set up, which is very important to be just right, put me right where I needed to be. It started seeing miles. Hard miles. The bike had patina and I've never felt the need to baby it. It took everything with grace. Less twitchy than my Ritchey, less flexy than my Bontrager, more responsive than my Yeti, and more forgiving than my Klein. I can say with absolute certainty that the Salsa Ala Carte hits the sweet spot for a vintage mountain bike. Not overly rare, not overly common, not overly expensive. It's memorable. It does everything well.
Because I'd spent so much time riding it, I was reluctant to pull the bike apart and rebuild it. One piece I never cared for was the Bontrager Composite fork. It chattered under hard braking. I've been told it's poor brake set up (totally possible), but every Bontrager Comp or Race fork I've ridden has given me unfavorable feed back. At a bike swap, I took a gamble on a Titanium Merlgoose (Merlin made Mongoose) and the fork that came with it was a pretty rare straight blade Koski fork. I'd ridden the more common curved Koski DuraTrac fork (as commonly found on American Breezers and Bridgestones) and liked it a fair amount.
I decided it was time to give the Ala Carte the full rebuild it deserved. Remove the disjointed build spec and try out the straight blade Koski. This brought a bike I really enjoyed and took it to another level. The build is a very predictable and reliable XT spec with little details to set it apart. Radial laced front, radial laced non-drive rear. Black hub and brakes to match the black Hite-Rite and seatpost out back, silver brakes and hub to offset the black Koski fork up front. The Koski fork was a delightful surprise and possibly the best feeling fork I've ever ridden short of the Cunningham Type I. This Ala Carte is, for me, the best a vintage mtb can offer and while it's more recently left my collection, I wouldn't hesitate to own another or recommend it to anyone wanting to dip into vintage mtb riding and ownership.
Fork: Koski Straight Blade
Rims: Mavic M231
Hubs: Shimano XT M730/M732
Quick Release: Salsa Rasta
Tires: OnZa Canis 2.25
Pedals: Shimano XT M737
Crank: Shimano XT M730
Rear Cogs: Shimano HG90
Bottom Bracket: Shimano
Front Derailleur: Shimano XT M735
Rear Derailleur: Shimano XT M735
Shifters: Shimano XT M732
Handlebars: WTB/Specialized RM-2
Grips: Black cloth
Stem: Salsa P10
Headset: Shimano XT M732
Brake set: Shimano XT M732
Brake levers: Dia-Compe
Saddle: Selle Italia Turbo Super
Seat Post: American Classic w/ Hite-Rite
Paint: Team Jelly Bean
Serial # SM786
I raved about the bike above, so it's no surprise that the ride of this 91 Salsa Ala Carte really spoke to me. I've found the bike to be an exceptional rider. Aggressive enough to be a competent race bike, but comfortable enough for a casual classic cross country mountain bike ride. The full XT drive train is functional and reliable (and on most of my bikes). The Salsa P10 stem and WTB shifter perches with WTB/Specialized RM-2 off road drop bars make for a brilliant cock pit. I ran it on very large OnZa Canis 2.25 tires add just a bit of extra cushion to an already very smooth riding bike. The Koski fork is accurate but not overly harsh. There isn't any local ride that I don't feel comfortable riding this bike in. It's at a point where I don't feel there are any other changes that could have been made to improve an exceptional bike. Thousands of miles, group rides, races, everything was a delight.